Q: My son, age 4 years 5months, said to me this a.m. on the way to preschool that he, "really wants a girlfriend." He said this in a pouty/miserable sort of way, like he might ask for a specific toy. What should I do? He has been saying the girls at preschool ask him to be his girlfriend and there has been a couple mentions about hand-holding etc. I don't want to freak out and scare him, but 4 is WAY to young to be talking about this, right?
A: Dear Drkayleelong:
All infants and toddlers are fascinated by the human body and about human relationships. Curiosity about boys and girls, about men and women, and about marriage and babies is basic to all small children--it is the job of childhood to puzzle over these mysteries and one's own role within them. Ideas about gender, sexuality, and families are universal preoccupations for children; by the time they are four years old, they are sophisticated enough to express these matters in language and to bring them up in conversation.
Thus, four is the perfect time for a boy to explain to a neighbor that babies are born from the bellybutton after something that Mommy ate. Four is the perfect time for a little girl to announce that when she grows up, she is going to marry Daddy and live in a castle! What we observe about the theories of four year olds is that their understanding of anatomy and of romantic relationships is quite magical and unrealistic--like their understanding of most complex things. The four year old has a lot of emotion tied up in these fantasies, which little by little is sorted out in more realistic ways as the child grows physically and psychologically.
For these reasons, it is entirely appropriate that your son is concerned with how he is going to be a grown man someday, and to envy what grown men have, and to want to get one at the mall as soon as possible--a magic sword, perhaps, or a girlfriend. It is not unheard of for four year olds to hold hands or to kiss, or to play-act that they are married. These are playful, imaginative rehearsals which involve real feelings, although these feelings are liable to change.
You do not need to do anything except provide your son a listening ear and perhaps a word or two of realism. You do not need to rub it in that he is only four, and that manhood is a long way off.
Elizabeth Berger MD
Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"